Cultural concessions in the class war



Clashes over critical race theory, gender studies, and the like, likewise distract from what should be the most fundamental battle on universities.

In the spring of 2005 I was teaching a course on social class in the United States. Halfway through the course, we discussed the relationships between workers' wages (stagnating), productivity (increasing), and profits (exploding). I explained that the state of these relationships was the result of intentionally employed strategies by capitalist employers. The next day, I was talking, before class, with a student, attentive and very conscientious, who always sat at the front of the room. She told me she had a double degree in sociology and business. I braced myself for a wave of skepticism about the analyzes I had been doing. However, what she said was, "Professor Schwalbe, you talk a lot about the same things that my business professors talk about, but you sure do talk about it in a different way." The student's comment reminded me of the old adage that every successful capitalist needs to know what a Marxist knows about where profit comes from.

That saying came back to me a decade later at dinner with my partner, one of her colleagues, and that colleague's husband, who worked in the financial world. As usual, we ended up talking about higher education policy in North Carolina. The three academics at the table framed these policies as a battle between right-wing reactionaries in the state legislature and left-wing professors in universities. After patiently listening to our troglodyte attack, the colleague's husband said, as I recall, the following: “I don't think the battle is about ideology; it's about who controls the flow of money through each of the fields and by the university system and, also, who benefits from this control”. Here was the non-academic, the person in intimate relationship with capitalism, offering the most pragmatic materialist analysis. At the time, I hesitated not to consider the importance of ideology, but now I think he was right. The ideological froth on the surface of higher education policies was mostly a distraction.

This does not mean that there are not genuine ideological differences between left-wing faculty and right-wing legislators. No doubt many of these legislators would firmly reject the radically egalitarian, anti-imperialist, Democratic-friendly politics pursued by faculty on the left. But much of the recent denunciation by right-wing lawmakers of critical race theory, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other fields in the humanities is much more about grassroots instigation than about waging a substantive intellectual battle. This is evident when whistleblowers are asked to describe exactly what they disagree with, and, it turns out, they have no clear sense of what critical race theory, or any other academic target of the day, consists of. Exactly what one would expect if the purpose of this turbulent rhetoric was mainly to keep other matters out of focus.

I am not suggesting that what we teach about race, gender, sexuality and class is unimportant. Nor is it unimportant to resist attempts to limit our freedom to teach the truth about these matters as we try to identify it in our respective disciplines. Diversity and inclusion, affirmative action to overcome historical oppression, and respectful treatment of all members of our community are equally important. The opportunities to flourish, live comfortably and benefit from the justice that everyone deserves depends on our willingness – as progressive and leftist faculty, staff and students – to resist the reactionary, anti-egalitarian forces that threaten universities. Regardless of the motivations that coordinate these threats, the battles have real consequences and we must engage in them.

In a way, we've already won. Diversity, inclusion and equity are valued at academia. Respectful treatment of all is the implicit norm, despite lapses attributable to some persistent implicit biases. And while administrators, mindful of their public relations role, often stumble in the defense of academic freedom, professors are free to teach what and how they see fit. Indeed, one might argue that it is because progressive thinking has so visibly and completely conquered the university that we have become easy targets for conservative legislators trying to impress their base. It's painful to take these blows, but at the same time, we can take comfort in thinking that we've won the battle for a more egalitarian culture.

This is precisely the problem: our victories are, for the most part, cultural. In the face of modest protests, regulators, councils, and administrators removed statues of racists, renamed buildings, and sought to recruit a larger minority group among both faculty and students. Some even rushed to remove stones[I] of your fields. These are changes for the better, of course. However, while university administration blithely cedes control of the people to their pronouns, they will fight to the death before losing control over budgets, spending, personnel management, and relationships with outside funders. That is, they will, when pressed, offer some concessions on symbolic matters, but they will not concede any real power – the power that comes from controlling economic resources.

What has happened in the universities parallels what has happened in the United States over the last forty years. Many cultural battles have been won. The explicit expression of racism is, today, completely unacceptable. Public monuments erected to racists were removed. The historic theft of indigenous lands is ritually recognized. Abortion is legal, for now. Gays and lesbians can marry. Government agencies welcome people who identify as transgender or non-binary. Undoubtedly, these are positive changes.

Yet over the same period, economic inequality has worsened, wealth and political power have become even more concentrated, the working class has been completely divided, the labor movement has been slaughtered, military spending has increased, poverty persists, and proposals for the universal healthcare have been defeated time and time again. Despite gains in the field of culture, we lost the class war. It's as if, when we find resistance in changing the rules of the capitalist game in which we are trapped, we are satisfied with being able to redesign the team's logo.

Conservative analysts like to say that universities are run by leftist progressives. That statement always struck me as naive or clever marketing. Yes, professors create courses and curricula and usually decide, with little supervision, what they will teach in their courses – as it should be, given that professors have the necessary expertise in the topic they teach. But nearly all universities are authoritarian bureaucracies with power concentrated at the top. Those at the top of the board are mostly people from the business world. They are the ones who decide on institutional priorities, approve budgets and hire and fire directors and presidents, and have the final say in hiring, promotions and the most important initiatives of each program. It is rare to find professors on these councils – even if only represented. In the conference rooms where decisions are made, the progressive teacher is present only abstractly.

The culture wars waged in the field of higher education are analogous to the politics we see in Supreme Court nominations. Our attention is drawn to how the nominees stand on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, guns, affirmative action and the place of religion in public life. Important as they are, the almost exclusive focus on these issues obscures what matters most to the most powerful political and economic actors in American society: where nominees stand on property laws, labor laws, contracts, tax reform and regulations.

It is these legal realms that determine the distribution of wealth and power in our country. Confrontations over critical racial theory, gender studies, and the like, likewise distract from what should be the most fundamental battle: for democratic control of universities and the material resources on which they depend. Avoiding this battle, keeping even the idea of ​​it out of the question, is a way of keeping us resigned to accepting symbolic gestures regarding equality in place of what is real.

*Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. Author, among other books, of The Sociologically Examined Life: Pieces of the Conversation (Oxford University Press).

Translation: Lucius Proves

Originally published in CounterPunch.



[I] The author refers to the case of the University of Wisconsin that removed a rock called Chamberlain, as it would refer to a racist past [NT].

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